Thursday, October 30, 2014

Feeling guilty surfing the web? Or is it okay to waste time?

You may not have noticed, but I haven't been posting much. Not that my brain has stopped, but there's a distance between coming up with a great idea and taking the time to write it. Especially when you feel that blogging is wasting time.

When I was a kid, my stay-at-home mom was very busy. Our house was always clean; she prepared a fresh dinner, complete with some kind of meat, vegetables, fruit and salad, every night, and we ate together as a family. My mom was painfully shy, so she didn't involve herself in many social organizations or spend time out with friends. My dad was her best (and almost only) friend, and we three kids her life, and so I  thought cruelly she "wasn't doing anything." In other words, wasting time.

When Los Angeles property taxes soared through the roof, our family was in danger of losing ours, since my dad's salary working in the state unemployment office just didn't cover it. This was before Prop 13, which rolled back taxes to 1975 levels and only allowed 2% increases if you stayed in the same home. Once enacted, property tax rates dropped 57%. Until 1978, though, my parents thought there were only two alternatives: sell the house we'd lived in since 1952, or my mom should get a job.

Working as a secretary for a wealthy businessman suddenly meant she was "doing something," bringing in money. I don't think she really liked dictation, filing and typing for the elderly gentleman, though she'd certainly worked as a secretary for many years before her children came along. But the real question arising from this story is: What activities constitute "doing something" with your time? Is vacuuming when next week it's just as dirty worthwhile?

If you don't "monetize" time to its potential, are you wasting time? Or is time enjoyed and savored a good enough outcome? Should pleasure be a byproduct rather than pursued?

All such conflicts boil down to an underlying tension in our culture between two opposing definitions of "right" and "good:" "Do your duty" versus "follow your heart."

Doing one's duty usually means first honoring principles, a set of rules you've accepted, or a contract you've made, all intangibles. You don't want to leave your cozy bed to go to class; so you choose somnolence or honor your matriculation. You don't want to face the project at work today, but it's your job, your commitment. You don't want to loan money to your destitute sister, but your moral code dictates that you help your family.

Conversely, "following your heart" means first honoring emotions or physical desires. You're comfy sleeping, so skip your early meeting. That co-worker is alluring, so you ignore that she's married. You think you'll be rejected, so pass up the job you could plausibly win if you'd just jump through the hoops. You hate paying the bills, so go eat a bag of Cheetos.

It's possible to simultaneously do your duty and follow your heart. When I observe my religious commandments hosting a Shabbat lunch, my heart thrills to gather interesting people enjoying my food. My two daughters are teachers, defined as chronically fatigued individuals with an indefatigable desire to improve the minds and lives of their charges.

 Most jobs and activities fit somewhere on the continuum between the opposing "doing your duty" and "following your heart." My husband loves hosting his radio show. But reading 5 newspapers every day hangs over him like an avalanche poised to bury him. He loves speaking to audiences who ponder arguments. But he hates traveling to get there.

The Jewish term for "following your heart" is to succumb to the "negative inclination, (yatzer ha ra)" the desire to eschew religious precepts for one's desires. It's the classic conflict between heaven and earth, spiritual and physical. "Do what you ought, not what you want." Why can't you "want" what you "ought"? The answer lies in setting priorities. When "ought" and "want" collide, the mature person forgoes pleasure for duty. When they can harmonize, both are lovely and shouldn't cause guilt.

Must get back to my project. Time's a wasting...(aarrgggghh!)